Frozen in time

Tamara Jones
Thursday, 4 April 2024

In January 1912, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, or AAE, established a main base on the Antarctic continent at Cape Denison. Three-thousand kilometres south of Australia, and on the same longitude as Melbourne, the collection of buildings later became known as Mawson's Huts. Those huts served as living quarters, a workshop, and a base for scientific observations on one of the first truly scientific expeditions to the icy continent.

Tragedy strikes

In November 1912, close friends Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis joined leader Douglas Mawson on a summer sledding expedition from the huts at Cape Denison. Three weeks into the expedition, Ninnis fell through a snow-covered crevasse, along with six dogs and most of the party's rations and essential supplies. Mawson and Mertz could do nothing but stand beside the crevasse and call out for Ninnis. After three hours, with no response or signs of life, they said a prayer and had to move on. 

Xavier Mertz died a month later, on 8 January 1913. One explanation for his death is an excessive intake of vitamin A – when the food ran out, Mawson and Mertz were forced to eat the remaining dogs, including the vitamin A-rich livers. Douglas Mawson made the long trek back to the base alone, reaching the huts just in time to watch his ship, Aurora, and its crew, sail off into the distance. He was forced to spend a second long winter in Antarctica at Cape Denison.

Mawson's Huts

Mawson's Huts included a main building with living quarters and a workshop. Other huts were used for scientific observations. However, when their purpose had been served, the huts were abandoned in the coldest, windiest, and driest continent on earth. Mawson's own records for the Antarctic show average annual wind speeds of between 40 and 50 knots, gusting to over 150 knots. This is similar to the wind speeds of Cyclone Tracy.

The between times

For the next 65 years, visitors to the huts were few and far between, mostly seals and penguins, and the odd bird. People that did make the journey reported the gradual deterioration of Mawson's Huts. They were in danger of being lost forever, so in 1978 a four-person party of former expeditioners with the Antarctic Division returned for five weeks on a mission to rescue the main hut from the ice.

The excavation

The expeditioners used shovels, handsaws, ice axes, a chainsaw and an impact chisel powered by a petrol-generator to excavate the interior of the former living quarters. Although larger pieces of expedition equipment had been returned previously, many small items were found, including plates, novels, cans, magazines, bottles, newspapers, and a dog collar. Some of these items were returned to Australia but most were cleaned, photographed, catalogued and then left undisturbed. The Mawson's Huts historical site, which includes a memorial cross erected in memory of Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis, still stands today. A replica hut was opened in Hobart, Tasmania in 2013. 

The Mawson's Huts site showcases early Australian Antarctic research and is one of only six historic sites remaining intact from the 'Heroic Era' of Antarctic exploration. You could almost say they are a moment of history frozen in time.

You can discover more stories about Australia's relationship with Antarctica as well as photographs of early 20th-century Antarctic exploration at Chilled: Antarctic life inside and out, showing at the Western Australian Office until 3 May 2024.